Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday 20 November 2011

"next word, better word" by Stephen Dobyns (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

The title's a reaction to Ginsberg's “first thought, best thought”. Dobyns doesn't mind stating his beliefs, many of which are commonly held though perhaps unfashionable with some academics -

  • "One of the demands of poetry, especially of Romantic poetry and its offshoots, is that it must have an appearance of spontaneity which creates the impression that the poem was flung off fully formed in a moment of inspiration ... In addition, romantic poetry demands a high degree of verisimilitude", p.11
  • "a poem must give the impression that it is larger than its actual size would suggest", p.117
  • "A poem is a form of communication and must be capable of communicating. For me this is an axiom", p.203
  • "A lyric poem is a symbol of life, the realm of feelings. It was written because the poet has experienced an emotion about which he or she was unable to remain silent", p.147
  • "An enjambed line creates tension; an end-stopped line creates rest. A long sentence will create tension; a shorter sentence creates rest. Obscurity creates tension; clarity creates rest. ... If fact, any sound or rhythm within the poem can be repeated to create the expectation of a reappearance. .. Patterns of tension and release are often easier in metered poems", p.181
  • "Everything within a poem heightens the poem's symbol and participates within it", p.205
  • "One writes a poem because one is unable to remain silent and from a desire to create something beautiful, but also writes out of a sense of play, which is a force behind all art", p.16
  • "Every line, every sentence has to have within it a reason to read the next", p.30
  • "we go to poetry and the other arts for knowledge, to expand our moral experience of the world, for sustenance, survival, and connection", p.33
  • "I look for many things within a poem, but one thing I look for is corroboration of human experience", p.213
  • "The reader usually assumes that all aspects of sound and content exist for a specific reason. That reason, as far as the reader is concerned, must fit within a range of acceptable reasons based in part on reading experience and in part on the reader's experience of the world", p.91

He takes some fairly modern examples of poetry (Bill Knott, Merwin, Kenneth Rozen, etc) and attempts to show how these traditional values still apply. He tackles form and line breaks head-on -

  • "Wallace Stevens, when he read his poetry, never audibly broke the line", p.94
  • "An effect of nonmetered poetry is that it makes it more difficult to control nuance", p.101
  • "because nonmetered poetry can lack the range of emotional effects found in metered poetry, it makes the enjambed line with its artificial pause even more important, and, aside from rhythm, it functions much like an artificial pause in conversation", p.101
  • "many poets of the following generation - the fourth after Lowell - who write nonmetered poetry no longer seem to have the example of metered verse within the ear, with the result that many of their lines appear flaccid and lack any apparent reason why a line is broken this way rather than that. Their lines often read like prose", p.102

But he gives line breaks their due. Of a James Wright poem he says "If one rewrote the poem as a prose paragraph, the language would be flat and uninteresting. The line breaks with their enjambment, and the rhythm they help to create, keep that from happening", p.104. Later (p.110) he says "Rewrite Gluck's poem with end-stopped lines and it would read as prose, while if the same were done to Lux's poem, it would still read as a poem, though a much weaker one".

He takes a few pages to analyse the first paragraph of Henry James' "The Middle Years" - 3 pages alone on this first sentence - "The April day was soft and bright, and poor Dencombe, happy in the conceit of reasserted strength, stood in the garden of the hotel, comparing, with a deliberation in which, however, there was still something of langour, the attractions of easy strolls". He writes

  • "James used these commas to call attention to important words, used them in fact as line breaks are often used in poetry", p.129
  • "begins with an independent clause; the tone is straightforward and somewhat optimistic ... Rhythmically, we notice the clause is four iambs, which contributes to its lightness.", p.129
  • "The second independent clause has seven commas, which ensures no consistent rhythm can be established. This rhythmic disruption, as it were, arises, arises directly from the word "poor" ... Dencombe is "poor" because of his health, but also because he is deceived.", p.129
  • "The modifying phrase between the subject, Dencombe, and the verb, "stood," the following dependent clause and string of prepositional phrases create tension by delaying verbs and direct objects, but they also in their progression and rhythm imitate the languor of Dencombe's thought [which] leads to a slightly humorous direct object", p.129
  • "As with a classic Latinate sentence, James's second independent clause accumulates meaning until it reaches its most important words.", p.130
  • "James's sentence keeps us from being able to anticipate its direction and controls the speed at which we read it, while the word "poor" provides us with suspense enough to care about that direction", p.130
  • "James's sentence could be rewritten as "It was a nice day and Dencombe decided to go for a walk" ... by seeing just how the writer has expanded upon the simple version ... we develop a better idea of the writer's intentions", p.131-2

He spends several pages explaining closure, revision, metre, context, etc. He ends with a rather too long description of how languages spread but before then makes many worthwhile points

  • "every lyric poem has four types of closure: visual, syntactic, narrative, and contextual", p.168
  • "At times I read a poem by an inexperienced poet, and the poem stops right where it should begin. The poet has hit upon an evocative something (an image, perhaps), hopes that it is relevant, and decides this is enough of an ending ... One might be "And the geese fly north into memory." A line like that can be slapped onto the bottom of many poems ... some writers keep notebooks of such lines. They have a certain poetic tone and the appearance of meaning, but nothing is resolved. The poems are muddy. A common revision tool is to rewrite the poem using that last line as the first line to see what might happen", p.173-4
  • "The reason why polysyllabic words are less common in poetry is because most have one stressed and three or four unstressed syllables. A number of theses together may make the line flaccid and turn to prose", p.182
  • "[Baudelaire's L'Héautontimorouménos] was long seen to be a sexual sadomasochistic poem, it is now generally accepted that the poem is about writing poetry", p.198
  • "When a philosopher, scientist, or psychologist discusses the discrepancy between the actual and the ideal, he or she attempts to convince us with the tools of discursive thought ... An artist does it differently ... their primary approach is different, even though both groups, if you will, are investigating the actual, the ideal, and the discrepancy in between", p.222

I've many lines like "And the geese fly north into memory" in my notebook.

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